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Are Microschools the Next Big Thing?: New at Reason

The promise and peril of tiny private schools

Oivind HovlandOivind HovlandPortfolio School looks and sounds like a Silicon Valley tech firm's rec room—except that almost everyone is under the age of 10. The building's walls double as whiteboards, with nearly every inch covered in colorful, hand-drawn diagrams of constellations and planetary orbits. Along one side, kid-sized scissors and glue sticks are piled neatly next to a 3D printer and laser cutter.

During my visit, a boy with an explosion of brown hair skidded up to me. "We're making movies!" he announced. Around the room, other students were reading, completing lessons on educational software, working on tinker toys. Without the unconscious kid-adult barriers that traditional schools often create, the chatty boy felt free to talk my ear off about how he and a group of his classmates had created characters for a science fiction film about a trip to Mars. He seemed particularly interested in the editing process, where they would get to add Martian backgrounds and other special effects.

Portfolio School is part of a growing movement of "micro-schools." Coined by British education blogger Cushla Barry in 2010, the term refers to educational institutions that emphasize interdisciplinary project-based learning, building social skills such as communication and critical thinking, and tailoring instruction to the needs of each individual student.

The schools tend to focus on teamwork, and they're small by design—with student bodies ranging anywhere from half a dozen to roughly 150 students. The size limitations, informed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar's now famous research on the maximum number of relationships most human beings can comfortably maintain, help the employees stay better connected with their students' individual needs. Portfolio, located in Manhattan's upscale TriBeCa neighborhood, is one of the most elite (and expensive) microschools, focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects.

The movement, which grew from scrappy homeschool roots, has been taken up by nerds who want to hack primary education. Like all startups, the microschool model will rise or fall on its ability to meet customer needs at the right price. Success is far from assured. But could tech-savvy tiny schools be the future, asks Tyler Koteskey in the latest print addition of Reason magazine.

Photo Credit: Oivind Hovland

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